December 16, 2014
Albert Lewin is an elusive figure in the history of Hollywood. He was an educated aesthete with a B.A. from NYU and a M.A. from Harvard who took a job as a script reader at Samuel Goldwyn studios. He swiftly rose through the ranks after Goldwyn was absorbed by MGM, and he was one of the five “Thalberg Men” who facilitated the studios success, overseeing hits like Spawn of the North and Mutiny on the Bounty. When not overseeing super productions, Lewin directed six unusual features, almost all about artistically inclined loners enmeshed in a debilitating obsession. His most famous film is his 1945 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. It is a startlingly controlled production, from Hurd Hatfield’s evocatively blank lead performance to the deep focus photography of DP Harry Stradling, which gives ample space for Gray’s emptiness to expand.
Aside from the addition of a few characters, the film hews closely to Wilde’s story. It regards Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield), a preternaturally handsome young gentleman who becomes horrified at the thought of his aging. While gazing at the portrait of himself that had just been completed, Gray makes a passionate wish for the painting to reflect the aging process, but that his body remain young and unlined. His wish is granted. The painting reflects his true face, while he flesh becomes a mask. When his love of a nightclub singer (Angela Lansbury) encounters tragedy, Gray turns to all varieties of debauchery as a distraction, and the painting’s face becomes more and more grotesque, a rebuke to Gray’s fetishization of youth.
Every element of the movie is thought through and fussed over. The interior of Gray’s apartment is designed to look like a museum, a cold receptacle that does not seem to allow for a human presence. Hurd Hatfield gives a performance of dreamlike roboticism, as if controlled by joystick off-screen, his voice an uninflected monotone. It is incredibly bold to have a void at the center of your movie, but Lewin seems to push Hatfield more and more into nothingness, until all that’s left of him are those improbably high cheekbones. Hatfield’s face is a marvel in itself, with fine feminine features lending his face a striking asexuality. In the original publication of Wilde’s novella, references to homosexuality were removed by the publisher. In the film, Gray’s proclivities are strongly suggested in a scene where a doctor arrives and is blackmailed to aid Gray in a crime. The act for which he is being blackmailed is never stated, which becomes a proof of its own.
The one chance Gray has to escape his narcissism is in his infatuation with Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury), the main attraction at the seedy Two Turtles Pub. He first sees Vane on stage as she croons the schmaltzy, affecting “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” in her singsong voice as the emcee tosses feathers in her wake. Gray sees an unaffected innocence in her performance, and returns repeatedly to bathe in her naturalness. It is in these encounters in which flickers of life still emerge behind Hatfield’s eyes. But instead of following his heart he follows the instructions of the social butterfly/philosopher of pleasure Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders). Gray is a blank slate, and Wotton fills him up with witty, empty words of self-love. And so Gray is put on the path to self-destruction, and the painting seems to rot off the canvas.
The painting in The Picture of Dorian Gray serves a similar purpose as the curse in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, Lewin’s 1951 feature adaptation of the seafaring fable. In it, James Mason is the titular Dutchman, doomed to sail the seven seas until he finds a woman who is willing to die for him (in this case, Ava Gardner). Like the portrait, the curse is a supernatural element that isolates the central character. In the film the Dutchman is a portrait artist, using painting as an escape from his endless existence. He is more heroic than Gray, actively seeking a way out of his loneliness, whereas Gray is directed straight to oblivion. But both films are studies of men with artistic temperaments driven to solitude and drawn to madness.
The “after” painting of Gray’s ugly moral state was made by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, who Lewin admired. Albright made exaggeratedly unforgiving self-portraits, emphasizing every flap and fold of his aging face and neck. Who better to paint Gray’s true self than that? Albright’s figures look illuminated from within, and the fantastical nature of his exaggerations often has him grouped with the magic realists. Albright was commissioned to paint both the “before” and “after” portraits of Gray, but his process was so slow-moving and demanding that he only ever completed the “after”. The “before” was ultimately painted by Henrique Medina. Albright’s portrait is one of the great movie paintings, a phantasmagoric rendering of a diseased, pustule-ridden lout, his decaying presence infecting the room around him, everything dissolving back into organic matter.